Law and Conversation

April 22, 2011

Story and memoir: truth or not?

I love to read a good memoir, so the proliferation of stories on books published as memoirs that get exposed as less than truthful is really bugging me.

Most recently, 60 Minutes and other sources, including the very fine writer Jon Krakauer, have cast doubts on the veracity of Greg Mortenson’s bestselling “Three Cups Of Tea,” written with professional writer David Relin. Outside Magazine has an interview with Mortenson on the scrutiny of his story.

Mortenson’s message remains compelling and persuasive: resources from the US and other democratic powers would be far more beneficial and effective if they were spent on facilitating education, particularly for girls, in nations such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, instead of on military operations. Unfortunately, the publicity surrounding the disappointing possibility that the book fudges some facts does nothing but detract and distract from the message.

I can think of at least two possible reasons for memoir writers to be less than truthful in telling their stories. First, it’s uncomfortable to include less than attractive aspects of yourself and your actions in your life story. Second, maybe you think your story just isn’t interesting enough, and would improve with some fiction added.

Fibbing is dangerous, and I don’t see how either of these reasons can justify not telling the truth. If you don’t want to write your life story without changing the unattractive aspects, or if you think you could make it a better story by changing it, why not just publish it as fiction? If neither writing it truthfully, meaning as it really happened, nor writing it as fiction appeals, why write it at all?

I don’t understand why there seems to be a significant segment of readers who think that it’s no big deal if a writer’s work, billed as nonfiction, contains fictional elements. Are these the same people who think it’s no big deal if a witness in a trial, or a prospective juror, who’s sworn to tell the truth doesn’t do so? Why is this NOT a big deal?

Loving a good story as I do, I disagree that a story presented as nonfiction improves when its author adds some fiction (and thereby transforms the whole story into fiction). For me, the appeal of a memoir is that I want to read about what someone actually did, what actually happened to the person, and how the person was transformed by those actual experiences.

I know, and other reasonable readers know, that nobody’s a saint. It’s heartening to read a first-person account that includes unattractive behavior and mistakes on the part of the storyteller, because that’s part of what makes a story universal: we all make mistakes, and we all have some unattractive behavior in our background that we’d like to make sense of, atone for, or otherwise get beyond as part of our personal journey through life. The best memoirists show us, as part of their stories, how they came to make the mistakes they did and then how they recognized and learned from their mistakes. One good recent example is Mary Karr’s “Lit.” Jon Krakauer himself provides another good example in “Into Thin Air,” in which he’s as hard on himself as he is on anyone else. Both books are extraordinarily compelling.

Just as with witnesses in trials, when I learn that memoirists have painted themselves as more virtuous than they really were, or exaggerated events in their lives, I’m not only disappointed but also starting to wonder what else they didn’t tell the complete truth about. Ultimately, fibs always come back to haunt people who didn’t tell the truth and always diminish their stories and messages.

I think that’s even worse for the memoirist who just fudged a little bit than it is for the one who made up a story from whole cloth and presented it as the unvarnished truth.  The latter deserves to be branded as a liar. The former may very likely be a basically goodhearted person with a good message and a good story who unwisely gave in to fear, or insecurity, or a desire to sell more copies, or bad advice, told a story that was mostly, but not entirely, true, and, when the fudged facts are discovered, gets tagged in the same category as the latter writer.

I’m hoping that Mortenson’s detractors turn out to be mistaken, because the story he told is inspirational and his message, I believe, worthy. In the meantime, let’s withhold judgment until he’s spoken further and all the facts are out.

Among many other good posts on this topic, has a good essay by Thomas Gladysz, “Before Greg Mortenson and Three Cups of Tea,” about Margaret Bohme’s 1905 bestseller, “Diary of a Lost Girl,” published as the memoir of a young girl forced into prostitution but ultimately exposed as fiction. Radio New Zealand’s Kim Hill recently interviewed James Frey, author of the controversial bestseller “A Million Little Pieces.” Among other things, Frey said “the idea of a memoir in America as it is marketed and published and sold is a bunk idea…it’s just something people slap on the sides of books to sell them.” And The New Yorker has an interview with its staff writer James Stewart, a very fine and thoughtful writer who’s also a lawyer and has a new book out, “Tangled Webs:  How False Statements are Undermining America.” In it, Stewart discusses the harm that the breakdown of the public commitment to telling the truth under oath is doing to our society.

What do you think about less than truthful memoirs? How about not telling the truth under oath? Are these okay? Not a big deal? Is everyone really doing it? I don’t think so, but I’d love to hear what you think.

1 Comment »

  1. […] Mortenson and CAI and resolutions of the legal matters involving them, and make up your own mind. Here’s what I’m wondering: if Mortenson did deliberately fabricate portions of his book, which was classified as nonfiction […]

    Pingback by Three Cups of Tea, or Three Cups of Deceit? « Law and Conversation — August 29, 2011 @ 2:03 pm | Reply

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